Thursday 27 August

Alan Hamilton is a delightful man, and was generous with his time discussing his involvement with the Ludian project in-between editing a scientific paper and preparing to leave for Shanghai. Sadly, it doesn’t look possible for me to go there – there are no trips planned from the Institute, and it isn’t the sort of project you can just fly into. No-one there speaks English, and they would be very wary of my arrival.

But as one door closes, another throws open a tempting sliver of light.

I finally caught up with Yuan yesterday to see if he had found someone to accompany me to the Western Hills, but while a number of students were extremely willing – I was offering to pay them – they were nervous about doing so as they lacked the were inexperienced in botanical field work. Eventually Yuan offered to take me himself, although I felt a sense of reluctance.

However, he was happy to show me where the Paris polphylla were in the Endangered Species garden, as the ones in the Medicinal Herb garden were atypical, distorted badly by being cramped in a metal cage – necessary to prevent people from taking them or their seeds. He had some business on the way, and I accompanied him into the Taxonomy department where I was introduced to Yu-Min Shui and other members of his team, including his wife.

It’s always awkward just being introduced to someone when they’re speaking about you in Chinese and you don’t quite know what’s being said – but they seemed delighted to hear I was a Botanical Artist.

I’d been carrying around my sketches with me “just in case”, and this time it seems to have paid off. They were thrilled with the Begonia henryi in particular – although it’s not one of my favourites – and then they produced some very fine pen and ink illustrations which had been done by their “resident” botanical artist, who had sadly died earlier this year. And they needed more illustrations done, they said…

After some brief negotiations, and much to Yuan’s great relief, Prof Yu-Min Shui and his wife are taking me around the Western Hills tomorrow and, if things work out, have invited me to go on a field trip to the mountains in September. They will also cover my expenses if I help them with some black and white illustrations – they are particularly keen to record a new species which has never been illustrated before. The drawings will be for publication in scientific journals – and this could be one of the little break-throughs I’ve been working so hard to achieve.

Timing could work out well too, as I will be heading off to Dali and LiJiang shortly, then down to Xishangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens in the very south of Yunnan. I had planned to go straight to beautiful Guilin and Yangshou in Guangxi province for some R&R, but could easily delay this and head back up to Kunming.

After so many frustrations, and having to paint in Botanical Gardens rather than in the wild, it would be finally great to get into the field – and produce botanical illustrations which can be used for a particular, scientific, purpose.

Monday 24 August

The day didn’t start too well – I was expecting Yuan to let me know if he, or a student, would be able to take me to the Western Hills and explain the flora to me. By 10 am I decided to walk up to see him, taking my botanical sketches in case there was an opportunity to discuss some sort of project with KIB. I met him on the way, driving Feng Shi to the airport. He would call me tomorrow…

The frustration of uncertainty and delays was building – I needed to do something pro-active. So I dropped off my paintings, gathered my cameras and walked to the bus stop to go into the centre. I approached a young woman for directions, and it turned out that she had just finished an internship at the Institute. All Chinese who have studied English adopt an English name – a practice which I find rather odd, but which seems to please them – and Faye and I spent the next 40 minutes on the bus chatting like old friends, and arranged to meet up later as we were both planning to visit the Green Lake.

I then spent a tedious hour trying to find the Post Office (after having been sent to two Post Office Savings Banks) and retrieve a packaged from England which they had no record of, but easily found the camera store Faye had marked on my map to buy a camara bag – and prevent further mishaps. I eventually made my way through some fascinating, derelict old parts of Kunming – which of course were being torn down and replaced by modern structures – and the depressing bird and animal market.

So many wild birds crammed into tiny bamboo cages, geckoes, lizards and snakes in what looked like plastic lunch boxes, baby rabbits, mice and other small rodents – and more small wild birds jumbled up in a net bag ready to be traded to a stall holder. I saw no reason to photograph this casual cruelty.

The English Bookstore was harder to find, but I eventually bought a map of Kunming which wasn’t exclusively in Chinese, and headed for the Green Lake. Four hours walking was quite enough. We found a small Muslim restaurant and I had rice noodles while I got to know Faye and her friend from high school better.

The lake isn’t nearly as large as it appears on the map (they never seem to be to scale) but it was fascinating to see so many older people playing traditional musical instruments together, sometimes accompanied by fine female vocalists. Completely unselfconscious, often attracting a crowd of attentive listeners – even a rather brash brass band practicing by the lotus flower lake didn’t disturb the magic.

But I was flagging after so much walking, and felt very much in need of some caffeine. We walked away from the lake and past several coffee houses, until we came upon an area which had a strong western influence. Bars, cafes, signs in English – we passed Europeans mingling outside Salvador’s and headed up the narrow wooden stairs to an open-plan café with sofas, solid wooden tables and chairs – and a cosmopolitan clientele.

This was the Kunming of the guide books – where the Lonely Planet crowd hung out. The café/restaurant is owned by an American and Japanese couple, and has obviously struck a chord with both Westerners and Chinese alike. The place was clean the coffee and ice-cream excellent, and from the menu, a good range of European-style snacks and meals.

We were joined later by a Lebanese friend of Faye’s who was keen to show us a favourite place to eat, and we found ourselves down a lively side street near the University in Down Town Kunming sampling sushi and tempura as the thunder crashed and rain pummelled the bamboo awning, and we discussed the pros and cons of international study programmes.

I had heard that many Chinese wanted to study abroad, but don’t have sufficient grasp of English to be able to complete the initial application forms. Some struggle alone, but others from wealthier backgrounds pay an Agency to do the work for them. The Agency charges an enormous fee, but has experience of the application criteria  and applies on the student’s behalf to a wide range of Universities, guaranteeing an element of success. However, they also told me about wealthy Chinese students being accepted Universities in London, but not bothering to study English – or indeed their subject – but spending their time drinking, socialising and playing computer games. Then returning home, perhaps to follow another “course of study”.

The rain cleared and we wandered down the street to Mandalays, a tardis of a bookstore with its rickety wooden stairs and nooks and crannies crammed with paperbacks which specialises in English, French and German books. After much searching we eventually found a copy of The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama’s second book – right by the checkout desk. I was surprised how expensive all the books were, even the second-hand ones – but then what is £10 for all those thoughts, for all those hours of enjoyment? You might pay that for a good meal or one night’s accommodation – the insights might last a life-time.